Correction: This piece misidentified the age of Lamya Haji Bashar and has been updated to reflect the correct age.
In 2014, Lamya Haji Bashar was a 15-year-old woman in Kocho, a sleepy Yazidi farming village in northern Iraq. On Sunday, August 3, 2014, her life changed forever when ISIS swept through the region.
ISIS fighters killed her neighbors and friends, entire families, women and children. Thousands of Yazidis fell victim to mass executions and disappeared into mass graves. And thousands of Yazidi women and girls were sold into slavery. The UN would later recognize ISIS as the perpetrator of a genocide against the Yazidi community.
Bashar herself was sold as a modern-day slave to ISIS. She escaped and is now sharing the brutal truth of violence against women.
And on Monday’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we are reminded of the millions of girls and women like Bashar who have not escaped and continue to suffer at the hands of their abusers across the world.
But it is not enough to commemorate them. Concerned citizens across the world must continue to pressure international organizations and national governments to hold ISIS accountable, while providing aid to the women and girls who are victims of sexual abuse in conflict zones. We must be advocates and supporters of women like Bashar who are willing to share their stories, so that their voice continues to be heard and their stories never forgotten.
So, what is Bashar’s full story?
After her father and brothers were murdered, and she was sold into captivity with her sister, she experienced horrible abuse at the hands of several ISIS fighters. Bashar attempted to escape bondage four times, and she was found and beaten every time.
But this did not break her. After 18 months of captivity, on her fifth attempt, she escaped with two other young girls. One stepped on a landmine. Bashar was the sole survivor, but she was badly injured, and the explosion damaged her eyes.
At the time, my organization, Air Bridge Iraq (Luftbrücke Irak), was bringing Yazidis from remote areas in Iraq that needed urgent medical attention to Germany for treatment. We heard about Bashar through one of her family members and knew we needed to help. We asked the German consulate to issue her a visa, so that she could enter the country and receive treatment. Doctors were able to save one of her eyes after a long procedure, but we knew her rehabilitation would mean more than surgery.
Bashar began to ask about my work as an advocate for the Yazidi community, and she asked if she, too, could speak on behalf of our torn Yazidi community. Only one month after her operation, Bashar courageously stood before the European Parliament in Brussels and gave her testimony as a survivor of relentless sexual violence under ISIS captivity. She and fellow Yazidi survivor and advocate Nadia Murad were awarded the 2016 European Parliament Sakharov Prize for Freedom.
“The Yazidis have been victims of extremism, of violence and terrorism, they have lost their lives, but I very much ask you and urge you to promise me, to promise us, that never again, never again will you allow these kinds of things to happen,” Bashar said in an emotional acceptance speech. “That you will listen to us and see that justice will be done so that the criminals can be brought to justice and held accountable.”
I remember that day, and I remember a room filled with tears.
Over the past three years, Bashar and I have traveled across the world telling her story to communities that need to hear the plight of women experiencing this unspeakable violence. From Venice, Italy, to Tel Aviv, Israel, we have educated other women along the way on trauma therapy and how best to aid victims of sexual violence.
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We ask you to listen to Bashar’s story. Seek out the voices of those who cannot be heard and amplify their message to your communities. We will not rest until every woman and girl is freed from the bonds of violence.